Hauling In The Cargo Bike

Back in December, subsequent to my Outside column about how driving your kids to school sucks, a PR person contacted me and asked if I’d like to try a Yuba cargo bike.  Attached were photos of flannel-clad people happily hauling their human children, like this one:

Naturally I replied in the affirmative, and the models that came up were the Spicy Curry:

And the Supermarché:

I’d been itching to try an electric cargo bike since I live in the New York City hill country, and so exited was I to partake of a loaner that I failed to carefully read the specifications on both bikes.  In short, I assumed both bikes had electric assists, and so I ended up accepting the Supermarché.

Anyway, recently I got word that the bike was ready for me, and so I headed out to 718 Cyclery in Brooklyn to pick it up:

718 is an interesting shop.  Not only did they organize that fat bike race in Queens I rode awhile back:

But they also sell both Rivendell and Jones, as well as all manner of mixed-terrain, gravelly, au courant bicycles:

Grant Petersen and Jeff Jones are my two favorite single-minded bicycle designers, and any shop that offers bikes from both is all right with me.

And so it was that yesterday I headed out to 718 by subway to pick up the Supermarché.  It’s well over an hour by subway from my manse on the mainland to that part of Brooklyn, which is something I once would have dreaded, but as a parent of seventeen (17) children I now relish such journeys as I can just sit there and listen to music without children pestering me for Goldfish crackers every ten seconds.  (Someone really needs to invent a Golfish feedbag you can strap to your child’s face.)  Given this, I arrived at 718 with a spring in my step, and you’d think I’d just undergone a spa treatment and not a subterranean train journey on plastic seats.  And there it was:

This was when I realized the bicycle didn’t have an electric assist.

I was disappointed for two (2) reasons: 1) After years of child-schlepping I’m about ready for some goddamn help; and B) I had a 20-mile ride back to the Bronx ahead of me.  More specifically, I had to be home to meet my son’s schoolbus and I’d been banking on that electronic tailwind to ensure my punctuality.

Given the above, I briefly considered declining the bike.  However, after taking a quick spin around the block I found the ride quality to be considerably more spry than I’d expected, and so I threw my backpack into the bamboo box (a $250 add-on if you’re wondering) and off I went.

At this point, I should share with you my box bike riding credentials up to now.  My first experience with a bakfiets was back in 2011 when my family and I went to Amsterdam and I borrowed one from WorkCycles:

It was on that trip that the pie plates fell from my eyes and I went Full Smug.  I even wrote a book about it:

That video, incidentally, represents my second experience with a bakfiets.  See, we shot it in San Francisco and I had to pedal that goddamn thing all over town for two days.  Real actors get a trailer, whereas bike bloggers have to transport their own props, as well as the equipment.

Anyway, despite its superficial resemblance to the bikes above the Yuba is different in a crucial way.  While the full-on Dutch style bakfiets has roller brakes, internal gearing, and a chain case, the Yuba has mountain bike hydraulic disc brakes, derailleurs, and an exposed chain.  (It also doesn’t have a wheel lock, though there are tabs for one that you can buy from Yuba.)

Basically, the advantages of this drivetrain arrangement are as follows:

  • Wide range of gears
  • Easier to maintain
  • Probably lighter

The disadvantages are:

  • Exposed drivetrains are less friendly to toddlers and trousers
  • The bike can’t live outside for long periods of time

That second point in particular means the Yuba is sort of a non-starter if you don’t have indoor storage for it, and overall the Yuba is more of a “sports cargo bike” than a full-on Euro-style smugness flotilla–which is not a bad thing at all as long as you’ve got a place to keep it.  Certainly if you’re coming from a recreational cycling background you’ll appreciate the bike’s sporting nature as it rides more like what you’re used to, and you can also configure it in various ways that don’t involve having a big tub up front:


In other words, it’s a cargo bike for Americans.

As for riding it in the city, like any large bike you’re not exactly weaving through any traffic jams:

And bike lane encroachments are that much more infuriating:

However, when you’ve got the full lane the bike’s very pleasant to ride:

There are a few things you’ve got to get used to when riding a big bike with a box on the front though.  For one thing, there are lots of questions:

For another, you’ve got to remember to stop early at lights so you don’t encroach on the crosswalk with your giant proboscis:

Also, while you grow accustomed to it quickly, those first few slow-speed turns feel really weird.  (This is true of every long front-loader I’ve ridden.)

And of course parking it is a little more involved than leaning it against a pole and throwing a u-lock on it, but if you’ve ever dealt with a motorcycle it’s no biggie:

I didn’t even miss the lack of an electric motor–until I realized that if I kept futzing around I was going to miss my kid’s schoolbus.  So I headed over to the West Side Greenway and engaged the afterburners:

Unfortunately, due to a meteorological phenomenon I don’t really understand, there is always–always–a headwind on the Greenway no matter which way you’re heading.  Furthermore, the phenomenon doesn’t affect everyone, because when you’re flailing into a headwind as I was, your artisanal bamboo box failing to cut through it like a paper knife through a day-old steak, the oncoming Freds are sailing with the wind at their backs with that smugly delusional expression you wear when you think you’re actually fast.

It was getting dicey there for awhile, but I put my head down and hammered.  I worried for awhile that I was going to have to lock the bike up and jump in an Uber or something, but with considerable effort I made all my splits: the Fairway at 2:00, the GWB at 2:20, and so on.  By Dyckman Street I was fairly confident I had it in the bag, and even briefly contemplated stopping in the bike shop for some brake pads:

But I know all too well the dangers of putting your arms up early, plus I still had the little rise at Seaman and Cumming to contend with:

In the end though I made it to the bus stop with a few extra minutes to catch my breath, and in case you’re wondering YOU’RE GODDAMN RIGHT I STRAVA’D IT:

I put the hammer down like a contractor when the check bounces.

Of course, it’s only been a day, but I’m pleased to report the bike’s already a big hit with the kids.  Here’s a shot from the passenger area:

We’re gonna make some sick edits.